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Jingle Your Bells
There are few things as iconic to a horse lover, as sleigh bells. Ornaments, including bells of all shapes and sized, have been used to adorn horses since 800 BCE. We’ve all seen the holiday greeting cards that feature a picturesque horse and sleigh, adorned with brassy, and beautiful bells. The sound of bells jingling to the cadence of an embellished harness is unparalleled. Their sound is distinctive and considered to be in the percussion family.
Horse bells are said to have good luck, and protect against disease, evil and injury. Bells both showcased a horse’s beauty and announced the owner’s social status. However, horse bells are not just decorative. They have a practical purpose also. In the days before automobiles the ringing of horse bells warned pedestrians and other horses/carriages about the approach of oncoming vehicles. Bells also alerted street venders and shop owners that delivery wagons were nearby.
Small bells were commonly seen in ancient times. In Sumer, Babylonia, Assyria, and Egypt bells were suspended from horses, mules and camels. Today it is not uncommon for a motorcyclist or bicycle rider to strap a bell to their handle bars.
In the 1500’s and 1600’s, horse bells were often plated with gold or silver, engraved with coats of arms or inscriptions, and presented as gifts.
Moving ahead to the 1700’s, horse bells in Britain were often worn by pack horses traveling narrow trails through the mountains and hills.
Sleigh bells have become a part of popular culture. They have been the inspiration behind songs, stories, and poetry. The song Jingle Bells, also known as One Horse Open Sleigh, is one of the most popular (and most recorded) songs of all time. When James Lord Pierpont wrote the song in 1857, it was in celebration of Thanksgiving.
In 1810 William Barton opened the first sleigh bell company in the United States. It was located in East Hampton Connecticut. East Hampton would later be known as Belltown, because it produced so many bells. Barton’s willingness to teach others the sleigh bell trade, also earned East Hampton the name “Jingle Town”.
By the end of the 1800’s the Est Hampton bell maker had supplied about 90% of the world’s bells. They developed a method to stamp sleigh bells out of sheet metal. Two men using the traditional method of casting could make about 500 bells daily. However, the sheet metal stamping process produced about 25,000 bells per day.
Sadly, almost all bell manufacturers went out of business by the early 1900’s. The reason can be attributed to Henry Ford and his invention of the automobile. In 1908, an automobile could be purchased for about $950. A decade later, the popular Model T was being sold for just $280 each. Over 15 million were sold annually. It isn’t difficult to understand why horse drawn carriages were rapidly disappearing. The sleigh bell industry faced deep decline as well. Many witnessed a dramatic transition from horse transportation to automobile, and the resulting disappearance of sleigh bells from daily life.
An iconic street photo taken in 1915 in Lansing, Iowa depicts many horse drawn vehicles and very few automobiles. Just five years later, in 1920, the same street was photographed. The street was adorned with cars and only a single horse and carriage would be seen. By the early 1940’s one would have to search for sleigh bells.
Today we see sleigh bells in home decoration. They also embellish sleighs and horse drawn carriages meant for pleasure riding and not actual daily transportation. Equine driving enthusiasts are restoring vintage bells that were used during the forgotten time when horses provided transportation.
New sleigh bells are often manufactured overseas and cut from cur brass. However, there are manufacturers in the United States that still use time honored techniques to make sleigh bell straps embellished with bells.
The next time you stand in awe of a beautifully matched pair of pulling horses, or a lovely carriage horse, take a moment to appreciate the bells. After all that is gold does not glitter. Some things make a glorious melody full of history and charm.